"God Doesn't Care What We Call Him" — But do We?

September 7, 2007

Author: Daniel Kynaston

Source: Sightings


Recent comments by a controversial Dutch Bishop suggesting that "people of all faiths" call God "Allah" have not only caused a firestorm in his country and abroad, but also raised important questions about naming God. Drawing on the example of Christians in Indonesia, Catholic Bishop Martinus Muskens stated that calling God "Allah" would foster understanding between religions, since "God doesn't care what we call him." But, one has to wonder, is it really that simple? Are the names for the divine that arise out of our religious traditions interchangeable with those of other religions? I suggest here that naming God is a far more complex matter than Bishop Muskens takes into account, because the names we give the divine also disclose the semantic foundation from which our traditions spring. Thus, they cannot be summarily dropped, no matter the noble cause.

Two interrelated notions underpin Bishop Muskens' suggestion. The first is theologically rooted in the assumption that since God is, in the final instance, beyond all human conception and understanding, all names fall short of the mark. From this well-established theological ground, Bishop Muskens then draws the further inference that since all names are inadequate, they are interchangeable, and we can therefore substitute names without regard for our traditions.

However, far from being a matter of "bickering" within a religious tradition or between traditions, naming God discloses the theological heart of these traditions: the names given to God are pregnant with meanings that are part and parcel of the traditions from which they arise. Naming God is hermeneutical: an interpretive task that not only aims to symbolize certain understandings about God in se, but also embodies the intentions, presuppositions, hopes, and fears of those doing the naming. This is to say that naming God is laden with a semantic depth that reflects God and the community, and becomes the very foundation of tradition as such. A name for God cannot be summarily adopted from another context, for it would not reflect the community or its generative traditions, nor the experience of the community before God. Understood in this light, names for God are not interchangeable.